Although Russia can no longer exercise hegemonic power or demand exclusive rights of engagement, it is still the preponderant regional player in Central Asia.

Conventional wisdom holds that China and Russia have managed to reach a tacit understanding over their respective roles in Central Asia. Some argue that, with Beijing effectively conceding to Russia the leading role in an emerging security architecture, the threat of a renewed Great Game in the region has been deferred.1 Others concur that, to many observers’ surprise, Central Asia’s independent states have not become objects of rivalry between Moscow and Beijing, but rather a major unifying element in Sino-Russian relations.2 The two governments, they underscore, cooperate more closely in Central Asia than in any other world region. A third group suggests that based on the evidence available thus far, Russia and China have upended predictions of greater competition and succeeded in transforming a potential source of tension into a means of greater cooperation and mutual reassurance.3 More recently, thanks to Russia’s involvement in the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts, and internal economic woes caused by the imposition of Western sanctions and the decline in the price of oil, many leading observers believe Russia is neglecting its ‘soft underbelly’ – Central Asia – and losing ground in the region.4

In fact, there is neither a strong Sino-Russian confrontation nor a clear ‘division of labour’ in Central Asia. In both security and cultural diplomacy, Russian President Vladimir Putin has presided over a more proactive, assertive and, ultimately, effective policy in Central Asia. Although this policy is still constrained significantly by Russia’s limited financial and economic means, Moscow has strengthened its influence, for the most part thanks to amiable relations with the Central Asian strongmen who still almost completely dominate politics in their respective countries.

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Morena Skalamera is a research associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, conducting research on the geopolitics of energy.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2017–January 2018

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